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‘Donation-type vending machines’ are serving charity on Japan’s streets

Courtesy of KY
A donation-type vending machine wrapped with the name of a charitable organization

Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines are now being tapped as a convenient way for consumers to change the world with their pocket change.

“Donation-type vending machines” have been popping up on street corners in recent years, as a new business model that has owners donate a portion of sales proceeds to charitable organizations.

Operators hope the initiative will be a win-win for both society and business, by providing consumers an added incentive to select their machines over the many others in the vending machine capital of the world.

In September, Kazuki Hirose, the 42-year-old president of KY, an HVAC contractor in Yokohama, installed a charity vending machine on the first floor of his building.

“Neighbors have approached me to express their delight at being able to contribute back to society [through the vending machine],” Hirose said.

The company has chosen to donate proceeds earned from the machine to Japan Team of Young Human Power (JHP), a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization working to build schools mainly in Cambodia. Since the company has to foot the bill for electricity and other costs, the amount donated comes out to only ¥1 per bottle sold. But it has still attracted many supporters, including some who travel long distances specifically to buy drinks from the machine.

The company received its SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) accreditation from the city in June, and had been looking for further ways to contribute to society.

“It’s helped raise our company’s profile,” Hirose said. “We would like to consider donating more per bottle in the future.”

Interest in charity vending machines is on the rise, according to a Tokyo nonprofit group that connects charities with companies that want to participate in the initiative. The group said the number of charity vending machines it helped install tripled from about 80 in 2015 to about 270 in 2020.

To make donation-type machines stand out on the street, they are wrapped with graphics advertising the name and activities of the charity in question. Beneficiaries of the system have said they are grateful for both the donations and the extra exposure.

The wrapping is handled by beverage manufacturers.

“The vending machine market has reached a saturation point. Between that and the continuing increase in the number of convenience stores, business has been struggling,” said an official of a beverage maker. “But being able to explain the social value of the charity vending machines has made it easier to encourage people to install more machines.”

Other groups have also been working to promote the initiative.

In fiscal 2020, the Nippon Foundation installed 486 new charity vending machines at social welfare organizations and other entities, bringing the total to 8,110. The foundation donates ¥10 per bottle of beverage — funneling about ¥280 million to support children with terminal diseases and others in the same fiscal year alone.

“We would like to cultivate a donation culture by getting more people involved little by little,” said a foundation official.

“When people see and use charity vending machines on a daily basis, it becomes a catalyst for them to think about social contribution in their daily lives,” pointed out Kobe University professor and beverage marketing expert Kei Kuriki. “It will also connect to a greater movement to solve issues in the community as a whole.”